Rob Dauster

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky’s loss to South Carolina isn’t surprising, it’s just who they are

Leave a comment

It happens all the time.

A good team will go on the road in league play, take a loss to a team they probably shouldn’t lose to and suddenly we all will starting talking about why this team stinks and how we knew it all along.

It happened with Duke when they lost at Boston College. It happened with Villanova when they lost at Butler. It happened with Michigan State when they lost at Ohio State. It happened with Arizona when they lost at Colorado.

And it happened last night when Kentucky lost at a rebuilding South Carolina team.

The only truly surprising part of Kentucky’s 76-68 loss to the Gamecocks was that it came after Kentucky held a 14-point second half lead. South Carolina has never exactly been known as an offensive juggernaut and, this year, they are still adapting to playing without Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. They closed the game on a 36-14 run just three days after winning a game where they shot 27.1 percent from the field.

If there is a concern here, it’s that Kentucky collapsed.

“This looked like a bunch of freshman playing,” John Calipari said afterward. “First time this year,” later adding that, “there’s an unwarranted arrogance that when we get up, we look really good. ‘I’m really good. I’m going to do what I’m choosing to do and I’m not going to listen.’ That’s what happened. It started rolling and all of a sudden we couldn’t stop it.”

Coach Cal is notorious for speaking to his players through press conferences. He knows that everything is said is going to get plastered all over social media and every Kentucky website, particularly after a loss like this. He knows it will pop up on his players’ twitter feed or when they are watching Sportscenter, so taking what he says publicly with that in mind is important.

And while there is some merit to what he’s saying, it’s also important to remember these three things:

  1. Kentucky is not only the youngest team in America, they were playing without their starting point guard (Quade Green) while trying to acclimate yet another freshman (Jarred Vanderbilt) into the rotation. Vanderbilt saw minutes at the point last night. Brad Calipari saw minutes, too.
  2. All of that happened against a team that just so happens to be one of the nation’s toughest and most physical defenses. South Carolina may lack some of the talent they had last season but they are still tough, strong kids that play for Frank Martin and are never going to back down. I guarantee there is nothing the kids on that roster love more than landing a shot against a team full of cocky future lottery picks.
  3. I’m going to say it slowly, so pay attention: Kentucky. Is. Not. That Good. We know this. They are ranked 21st in the AP Poll. They are rated 29th on KenPom. They don’t have a star. The only reason anyone is freaking out about this game is because of the name on the front of the jersey. If Auburn or Tennessee or Clemson blew a 14-point lead on the road against South Carolina we would chalk it up to a pretty good team falling victim to that home court advantage that is so prevalent in college hoops.

We will all save ourselves quite a bit of time and energy if we just accept what has become obvious: This is not a typical Kentucky team in the Cal era.

There is still Final Four upside should Cal figure this thing out, and with the way things are going in the SEC, a conference title is certainly still within reach.

But Kentucky is going to take some more lumps in league play. They’re going to end up getting a seed somewhere in that 5-7 range. Getting to a Sweet 16 would be good for them. A Final Four isn’t an impossibility, not with the upside on this roster, but dropping out of the dance before the final weekend certainly wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

That’s just who they are.

What can KenPom’s efficiency rankings tell us about this year’s title contenders?

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
2 Comments

Yesterday, we took a look at whether or not Duke’s issues on the defense end of the floor will affect whether or not they can win a national title, and barring a dramatic turnaround over the final three months of the season, the answer appears to be yes.

No one with a defense that ranks lower than Duke’s currently does has ever reached the national title game, and only two that are in the same vicinity have even played on the final Monday of the season.

That’s concerning.

But Duke is far from the only good team with major red flags this season, so today we are going to take a look which of the other national title contenders compare favorably with past Final Four teams.

(All the data in these charts come from KenPom.com. They are the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for each team, from prior to the start of the NCAA tournament as well as from the end of the season. We cannot use the adjusted efficiency margin because that data does not translate across seasons. KenPom’s database only goes back to the 2001-2002 season.)

Since 2002, just 13 of the 64 Final Four teams have had an offensive efficiency ranking outside the top 30 when the NCAA tournament began. Only four of those teams reached the national title game, while 2014 UConn is the only one to win a ring with an offense that wasn’t among the best in the country:

This season, there are a handful of top ten teams – teams that are largely considered among the best in the country – that are ranked outside the top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency, including a pair of Big 12 title challengers.

Some of these teams you would expect to be on here. Virginia hasn’t lost a step defensively this year, but without a killer like Joe Harris or Malcolm Brogdon, they aren’t among the elite on the offensive side of the ball. The same can be said for Cincinnati, Texas Tech and West Virginia. We know they win with their defense.

The surprise is Michigan.

John Beilein is widely regarded as one of college basketball’s best offensive tacticians, and to see him put together a team that is winning with their defense is … well, it is weird. He and Brad Stevens are the only two coaches to take teams to a title game with a defense that ranked outside of the top 40.

I know that the saying is “defense wins championships,” but that doesn’t hold water in the college basketball realm. While there have only been 11 Final Four teams that ranked outside the top 30 in defensive efficiency prior to the start of the tournament, three of them won the national title and three more reached the title game.

Put another way, it’s easier to win in March with a great offense and future NBA players than it is to win with a great defense that can sometimes struggle to score.

The one difference here is that the floor is not as low.

North Carolina’s 2009 team is the lowest-rated defense at 39th to win a title and they had four players still in NBA rotations today and two more than saw time on an NBA roster as some point.

Where this discussion gets really interesting is when looking at the teams that do not have great defenses this season.

Duke, who currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, is the team that we always talk about, but there are nine teams that have been ranked in the top five of the AP Poll at some point this season are currently outside the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric: Wichita State, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier, Duke, Arizona and Arizona State:

So who can actually win a title this season?

Of the last 16 national champs, 12 have ranked in the top ten of either offensive or defensive efficiency and 15 of the 16 have ranked in the top 20. The only team to win a national title while entering the NCAA tournament ranked outside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency was Kemba Walker’s 2011 UConn team, and they ranked 22nd and 25th, respectively.

Remember, this can all change rather quickly. If you look at the difference in the pre-tournament ratings vs. the post-tournament ratings below, you can see how much getting hot for a six-game stretch can change things, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

So this is a snapshot of how things stand today. In a two week’s time, these numbers could end up being irrelevant.

With that in mind, here are the six teams that – as of today – ranks in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.

 

For reference, here are the rankings for every national champion of the last 16 years.

Trae Young’s turnover-plagued night costs No. 4 Oklahoma at Kansas State

AP Photo
Leave a comment

When Stephen Curry was a freshman at Davidson, in one of the first games of his college career, he turned the ball over eight times in the first half of a game at Eastern Michigan. Head coach Bob McKillop toyed with the idea of benching his star freshman, instead opting to turn him loose again in the second half.

Curry scored 13 second half points – to go along with five turnovers – and then went out and dropped 32 in his next game.

Those 15 points and 13 turnovers were his first career double-double, and I’m not sure that he’s slowed down since.

I say all that to say this: It is a minor miracle that the first time that Trae Young looked mortal came on January 16th.

No. 4 Oklahoma went into Manhattan on Tuesday night and got worked over by Kansas State. The Sooners ended up losing 87-69. They trailed by 14 points within the first 10 minutes of the game. Young finished with 20 points and six assists – numbers that would be phenomenal for literally any other point guard on the road in conference play – but he shot just 8-for-21 from the floor, finished 2-for-10 from three and turned the ball over 12 times.

12!

In a vacuum, this performance really wouldn’t be anything to worry about. Young is Oklahoma’s offense. When he has a bad game, the team is going to struggle. That’s the risk of relying this much on one player. It is that simple, and the idea that we should expect a freshman point guard to make it the entirety of conference play in a league as difficult as the Big 12 is ludicrous. He’s going to throw up a dud every now and again, and that’s what happened on Tuesday.

“I played terrible,” Young said. “I blame a lot of this loss on me.”

Where this becomes a concern for the Sooners is that the turnover problem that Young dealt with on Tuesday is not exactly an isolated incident. Young is leading the nation averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, and while that number is inflated by opportunity – Young plays in the nation’s third-fastest offense with the highest-usage rate we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era – his turnover rate of 19.2 is somewhat concerning. For comparison’s sake, Jalen Brunson’s turnover rate is 10.5. Joel Berry II’s is 11.7. Devonte’ Graham’s is 17.0.

The biggest worry is that the number keeps rising. Young has set a career-high in turnovers in each of the last two games, three of the last four games and four times total since the start of Big 12 play. There are a lot of good coaches, good teams and great point guards in the Big 12. Teams may have started to solve the riddle, which means that Lon Kruger and Young are going to have to start making some adjustments.

And that will come.

Kruger is one of the best pure basketball coaches in the business.

He’ll find an answer.

Which is why the most disappointing part about this loss is that it puts Oklahoma in a tough spot in regards to an outright Big 12 regular season title. With how strong the top of the conference is, losing games against anyone outside of the top four is a major disadvantage, and Oklahoma is now the only team amongst that group – West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas included – that has lost one.

But credit where credit is due: Bruce Weber put together a game-plan to stymie Young, got 24 points and five assists out of Barry Brown and 21 points, seven boards and seven assists out of Dean Wade.

The Wildcats kicked Sooner tail on Tuesday, and in the process, earned themselves a win that is going to carry quite a bit of weight on Selection Sunday.

VIDEO: Kentucky coach John Calipari shows long-range skills during shootaround

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kentucky coach John Calipari’s shooting touch is still there, even from long range.

The Hall of Famer proved that during Tuesday’s shootaround before the No. 18 Wildcats faced South Carolina in a late-evening Southeastern Conference contest. In a video posted on his official Twitter account, Calipari stepped up and drained a basket from center court to his players’ surprise.

The coach smiled as he walked off the court, showing the swagger and confidence he seeks from another young roster of freshmen and sophomores.

Then again, one key to a coach getting what he wants from players is showing them how it’s done.

No. 3 Boilermakers keep rolling by blowing out Badgers 78-50

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Leave a comment

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Vincent Edwards scored 21 points and Carsen Edwards added 20, leading No. 3 Purdue to a 78-50 blowout over Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

The Boilermakers (18-2, 7-0 Big Ten) have won 14 straight overall, 19 in a row at home and have matched the best 20-game record in school history. The only other time Purdue did that was 1987-88 when it also won its first seven conference games.

Ethan Happ had 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead the Badgers (9-10, 2-4). Wisconsin has lost three straight — all on the road.

But they were never in it Tuesday.

Purdue made its first four 3-point attempts to jump out to a 12-0 lead, and then things got even worse for the Badgers.

Wisconsin needed more than 7 1/2 minutes to make a basket, and then the Boilermakers continued to pour it on.

Purdue extended the lead to 36-16 before the Badgers finally fought back to get within 39-22 at the half.

The second half was a virtual replay when Purdue’s first three baskets were again all 3s. And when Vincent Edwards drove in for a layup with 16:59 to go, the Boilermakers led 50-29.

Wisconsin cut the deficit to 16 with 14:50 to go, then allowed a 10-2 run to make it 62-38.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: Tuesday night’s performance looked very non-Badger like. They struggled to score, struggled on defense, got into foul trouble, couldn’t get to loose balls and had 15 first-half turnovers. They’re young, and, yes, they were playing their third straight road game. But they need to improve greatly.

Purdue: The Boilermakers just keep rolling along. They’ve held 11 straight opponents under 70 points, have made at least 10 3s in six of their last seven games and have won their last two by a combined 62 points. It’s hard to imagine Purdue playing much better.

KEY STATS

Wisconsin: Finished with a season high 20 turnovers. The Badgers’ previous high was 15. … Nobody other than Happ scored more than eight points or made more than two baskets. … The Badgers are 0-5 against ranked teams this season, each coming from a different conference: Xavier (Big East), Baylor (Big 12), UCLA (Pac-12), Virginia (ACC) and Purdue.

Purdue: P.J. Thompson scored 14 points and Carsen Edwards had five rebounds and four assists. … Purdue was 14 of 22 on 3s, giving them 10 or more in six of its last seven games. … The Boilermakers have held 11 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. … Purdue is 17-0 on American soil.

No. 12 Cincinnati beats UCF 49-38

Michael Hickey/Getty Images
1 Comment

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gary Clark scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to help No. 12 Cincinnati to a 49-38 victory over Central Florida.

Jacob Evans added 10 points for the Bearcats (16-2, 5-0 American Athletic Conference), who won their ninth straight game.

UCF (12-6, 3-3) got seven points apiece from Tacko Fall, Terrell Allen and Dayon Griffin, but struggled the entire game to get inside the Bearcats defense. UCF shot just 30 percent for the game and committed 14 turnovers.

It was expected to be a defensive game and both teams played up to that for the entire 40 minutes.

Cincinnati, which has suffered slow starts in its last three games, overcame this one by using speed in transition to beat the Knights down the court. That was especially effective when Fall, UCF’s 7-foot-6 center, was on the bench, which he was when Clark made a layup to put the Bearcats ahead for good at the 13:40 mark of the second half.

Clark’s basket was the start of a 10-2 run that gave Cincinnati a 38-30 lead.

UCF made a brief run when Fall got six straight points on two dunks and a layup to cut the deficit to 39-36, but the rally died when the Knights center missed two free throws on the next possession.

Clark took an alley-oop pass and slammed it home at the other end to push Cincinnati’s lead to 45-36 with 3:52 left in the game and UCF never got closer.